We’ll use your brain today.
Ukraine – Poland - Germany
Being a discerning reader I am sure you will be familiar with the sort of material where the author includes quotations from illustrious people that serves to demonstrate their cultural awareness, their educated literary knowledge and their intellectual prowess. I am also feeling the urge to share a quotation from a great person for those same reasons.
“String is a wonderful thing. Rope is thicker but string is quicker”. (Sir Spike Milligan, KBE) The relevance of this inspired concept is profound. Following a fairly uneventful exit from Russia into Ukraine, Flypaper & I were waiting for our travelling companions to escape the attentions of the Ukrainian Customs officers who would have no doubt been trying to remember the English words, “Do you have a gift for us?” I had primed them by magnanimously handing over half a packet of cigarettes that had been purchased on our exit from Auckland specifically for these occasions. Our friends had long run out and were probably trying to charm their way through – a practice I find abhorrent even among people I like and certainly never entertain the notion when in the presence of officialdom. As we snored harmoniously in the warm sun I became aware of some activity on the road behind that included shouting. Shouting is a catalyst that galvanizes most people into action or at least makes them turn their nose into the direction of the noise. Three men, who were of an age that should have made them wiser by far, were about to attempt to tow the vehicle they had just pushed out of Russia all the way through the bureaucratic process and into Ukraine. The ‘tower’ was driving an old rusty van of unknown pedigree while the ’towee’ was in the ubiquitous Lada. They connected the vehicles with the very material Spike referred to, string. And, as Spike so profoundly made us aware, they should have used something thicker. I speculated that either the clutch on the van was a bit vicious or the towee forgot to take off the handbrake because the string broke immediately. Unperturbed and in the way of people who were used to their best plans instantly failing, they joined the two pieces of string with a knot of serious proportions – cleverly thinking that would never fail. It didn’t. But the string broke just a little further along. All three jumped out to apply a remedy and, as the script provides, the towee abused the tower of incompetence while the tower suggested the towee had something to lean about the practice of towing. At least that was my interpretation after 8 days of studying the language. The ‘spare’ man was obviously of much higher intellect because he came up with the idea of doubling the string. While this is a sound principle and there is a mathematical formula that teaches the result will be twice as strong, he hadn’t done lesson 2 which states that the result will be half as long. While you and I would have backed the van closer to the Lada, our lads all grasped the string and tried to pull the Lada closer to the van. The string broke again – but this did reveal the problem – the Lada was in gear. Another round of shouting and another knot. The parties leapt into their respective vehicles with the airs of those who are confident of a successful mission. Sure enough the Lada faithfully followed the Van. So pleased was he with success, the driver of the van stopped – I presume to receive due praise … and the short coupled Lada ploughed into the back of it. Little damage was done – both vehicles were far from pristine and another dent or two would not have altered their paltry values. There was however, another round of shouting and the Lada owner made it quite clear that the towing contract was at an end. The van owner drove of in a huff without untying the tow string – which fortunately broke again; the majority following the van. Once alone, the Lada lads seemed fairly philosophical about it all, uncorked a bottle of Vodka and settled down to wait for the next likely tower to arrive. I mention this incident because it clearly demonstrates that the poor people of Eastern Europe are likely to remain that way for some time. Compounding their lack of intellect is the fact that their country is run by a relatively small band of cunning people – for absolute clarity we’ll call them ‘crooked bastards’ – who have become hugely wealthy and now focus on getting even more loot at the expense of those they look down on. It seems that the capitalism that replaced socialism has many characteristics in common. The biggest change is that the privileged now drive black Range Rovers and Mercedes instead of black Zils. It is quite bizarre to see that many of the small farms still rely on horse & cart. These are commonly found on the better highways which I suspect is a fact used by politicians to illustrate how much better off the rural community now is.
Dnepropetrovsk, Keiv and L’viv are all large Ukrainian cities with decaying historic centers and faster decaying Soviet era suburbs. Many travelers wax lyrical about the churches, monuments, and other historic edifices. I have no doubt that they gain great pleasure from being in the old neighborhoods’ which have principally been the stages for continual suffering by the majority of long periods. In contrast to those travelers who enjoy the ‘atmosphere’ I feel very sorry for the people who live with inadequate plumbing, rising damp, transport difficulties and few opportunities. I also felt very sorry for Flypaper carrying heavy bags up four flights of stairs each evening. I always made sure she had a nice cool drink to aid recovery. Most agree that L’viv is the best of the historic cities and, yes, I’m glad to have been there. However, the very best thing I saw was a lady walking her pig in the principal city square. I suspect her motives were the same as those who stroll about with a hound to catch the eye and break the ice. In my view, a lady with a ‘ham on the hoof’ is far more likely to succeed than one with a poodle.
The mention of pork reminds me that the foods on our journey have been many and varied … and generally delicious. There were times I had no idea what I was ordering or eventually eating. This was probably a good thing. I also discovered a few misconceptions. The Chinese do not live wholly on rice and noodles. (They eat anything at all that that can be held between two sticks) Central Asian desert people do not exclusively eat fat tailed mutton Shish Kebab. (Anything at all that can be skewered is in danger of being masticated) A real surprise for me was Borsch. I always considered the Russian peasants coming home from a hard day in the salt mines having suffered a flogging and a raw potato marinaded in an old sweaty sock had little to look forward to. Not so. All the recipes of Borsch I tasted were delicious and I would have willingly accepted a spanking just to get another plateful. On the other hand, the bread throughout Central Asia and Eastern Europe gives food a bad name. I suspect it was used by Genghis Khan, and others with similar attitudes, to beat their camels if they overslept. Perhaps this was where the ‘Club’ sandwich originated. It tended to be very nice just out of the oven but quickly developed the texture and appearance of muddy custom wood when cool. By lunch it was a toss-up between dunking or using it as a wheel chock. I believe that it would be great stuff to catch birds. Cut it into long slivers replicating worms. When they scoff it down they won’t be able to fly.
The food in the first Polish town, pretty and historic Przemysl was also notable. In fact it, together with our first real rain storm since China, was the most memorable feature of the town for me. Typical of the history of the region, the recipe was stolen. This time from Italy. People have been forever sneaking around Europe nicking stuff from each other. I believe Pizza is now the worlds most popular food. Notice I said popular – there are some foods such as rice and eggs and bread that are eaten in greater quantity but none of these feature on the popularity scale. The central square outdoor restaurant in Przemysl has developed the ‘MegaPizza’ … in 28 varieties. I have shared a MegaPizza in the US, but, with apologies to my US friends who are now well used to being offended by almost everyone; your Pizza is certainly big but lacks the finesse of the European originals. In my view this is due to the determination of the American Pizza Chefs to prove that fat equals excellence. The Przemysl offering was genuine Italian refinement in impressive proportion. 600mm in diameter. Only one aficionado was able to consume his share – they others saved some for the following days lunch. In my view this blew the chance to buy another. It also begs the question of the intellectual property ownership of the word ‘megabyte’.
Throughout the journey there were very few days we were not offered an egg in one form or another for breakfast and tomato / cucumber ‘salad’ to accompany most meals. These seem to be universal foods as I’m presented with them on every continent. If you are providing food for me in the future please consider something else. Things with chocolate as a main ingredient would be a nice option. Here in Europe it’s now ‘Spargel’ season. (We know it as Asparagus) Tomorrow I’m going to order chocolate covered Spargel.
I do confess to having considered Poland as the gateway back to civilization as we know it. I use the word ‘civilization’ reluctantly and with caution. There was a return to the Latin alphabet, an ability to communicate without pantomime and soft perforated toilet paper. There remained however, the feeling that behind the scenes it all continued to be a bit grim. Entry into Germany was yet another step back to our normal way of life. Surprisingly, the feelings of security and stress-free living failed to wash right over me. After about 300km I realized why. Germany, like my own country and all other ‘western’ environments, is a ‘surveillance’ society and one with so many rules that we are fearful of being disobedient, caught and being punished. Throughout Eastern China we never saw any police unless they were attending an accident. They took no notice of our constant misdemeanors. The people we spoke to said that the police were not interested because most people were too poor to pay fines. An advantage of poverty. In Western China and throughout the remainder of Central Asia the police took an interest in supplementing their incomes. It became a bit of a game. Both sides win some and both loose some. Never did we feel threatened or in any danger. Even the presence of impressive firepower served to give us some comfort. In ‘civilized’ Europe I slowly became aware that we were tracked, identifiable and easily punishable for even minor misdemeanors such as poor parking, travelling too close to another vehicle or having an innocent conversation with a lady in fishnet stockings. I also realized that ‘civilization’ was removing my need (and therefore ability) to think. For the past 16,000km we were constantly alert and making decisions. From Germany on we are told what to do by signage at every opportunity. I’ve discovered that to live in ‘civilization’ does not require a working brain.
The next few weeks will be spent racing cars and visiting friends before returning to New Zealand. The journey failed to require the washing machine but did prove conclusively that, if washing underwear in a rusty hand basin without a plug was an Olympic event; Flypaper is a serious contender for gold.
Many have requested an expanded version of this blog - perhaps even bound between two bits of Uzbek bread. I’m thinking about it. I’m also thinking about our next journey. After all, with an oil change and a couple of filters, HeeHaw will be ready to trot. Flypaper is demanding a morning at the hairdresser before seriously considering anything. Until then … who knows.